Approaching Bob Dylan’s body of work as a newcomer can be intimidating. The Nobel Laureate now gets taught at Harvard and Princeton, compared to Virgil and Ovid, Yeats and Joyce. Diving into Dylan’s own literary influences requires a formidable reading list. But as Sean Wilentz, consummate Dylan fan, Princeton professor of history, and author of Bob Dylan in America, points out, the Dylan legacy carries so much weight not only because of the singer's voracious reading habits, but because he emerged “in a culture in which songwriting has always been a major force” on the culture.
New Dylan fans come to him through his influence on the past 50 years of popular music, and understand him through the influence of the first 50 years of 20th century American music on him. He’s cited by such diverse legends as Hendrix, Bowie, and Boy George—at one time everyone wanted to be Dylan, or to write like him, at least—but one reason so many have imitated him is because he acquired his considerable depth by imitating others.
Growing up in the bleak surroundings of Hibbing, Minnesota, “a good place to leave,” he said, Dylan spent his time absorbing all he could from the Delta blues, the Carter Family, Johnny Cash, Little Richard, and Elvis. Like the best of his own imitators, Dylan developed the ability to transmute his influences into something new through close study, critical appreciation, and just plain-old goofing around.
In his earliest known recordings, made in 1958 in Hibbing with his hometown friend John Bucklen, Dylan does a little bit of all three, but mostly he sings ramshackle covers of rhythm and blues songs on an acoustic guitar, honing his talent for barreling through solo performances two years before he hit the stages of Greenwich Village’s coffeehouse folk scene.
The John Bucklen tape opens up a 5-hour Youtube collection featuring recordings from 1958 to 1965, which you can stream above. It's a set of “almost all the earliest tapes Bob made before signing up with Columbia Records,” notes the Youtube uploader. (“Some of the early stuff is dismal at best,” one reviewer of the collection writes, “but its historical importance cannot be overstated.”) From the ’58 home recordings, overdubbed with Bucklen’s later commentary, we move to the so-called Minnesota Party Tape, “a 35 minute recording in Bob’s apartment in Minneapolis" featuring his renditions of some traditional songs like “Johnny I hardly Knew You” and “Streets of Glory.”
This tape also shows the predominating influence of Woody Guthrie on Dylan at the time, the songwriter whom he most modeled himself after in the early sixties—later writing that he aimed to be “Guthrie’s greatest disciple"—and who pops up again and again in nearly all of these recordings after 1960. In January of 1961, Dylan moved to New York to visit Guthrie, then dying of Huntington’s disease, and began picking up Irish folk songs and African American spirituals from Dave Van Ronk, Odetta, and other downtown folk singers. He integrates these styles into his Guthrie imitation and picks up bits of Pete Seeger, Hank Williams, Blind Lemon Jefferson, and Jesse Fuller from his covers of their songs.
In tapes from 1962-63, we hear home recording versions of well-known originals from his first two albums—“A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall,” “Don’t Think Twice, It’s All Right”—and hear in them the cumulative layering of influence from Dylan’s years of apprenticeship. The entire collection, which includes interviews with Billy James and Steve Allen and performances on radio and TV, shows Dylan “evolving from a young kid in Minnesota to a superstar in 1965 before going electric… an amazing look at a young Bob Dylan becoming a legend in front of you.” Key to that evolution was his talent for creative imitation of traditional American music and its greatest interpreters.
See the full tracklist in the comment section of the video, and note that the third and fourth segments are in the wrong order in the Youtube video above.